Carl Mayer Mydans was born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 20, 1907. The son of a classical musician, he grew up in the nearby suburb of Medford, with dreams of being either a surgeon or a boat builder. These ambitions were permanently abandoned when he was introduced to journalism while attending Boston University. After graduation, he became a freelance journalist for the Boston Globe and the Boston Post, while serving as a staff writer for the American Banker (a daily Wall Street publication). Mr. Mydans’ career path shifted yet again in 1931 after buying a 35mm camera. At lunchtime, he would photograph the bustling activity of the urban scenes that surrounded him. His enthusiasm for photography transformed the young reporter into one of America’s first photojournalists. Not merely content with using photographs as text supplements, Mr. Mydans sought to translate words into vivid images. His first photograph was published in TIME magazine on April 1, 1935. Within three months, Mr. Mydans purchased a used compact 35mm camera fitted with a Zeiss Contax 50mm/1.5 lens, which would become his preferred equipment throughout his career. Impressed with his work, Roy Stryker hired him to become part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s newly formed Farm Security Administration (FSA). During his brief tenure, he documented the effects of the Great Depression on rural families. 35mm cameras were not commonly used by news photographers at the time, and caught the attention of several publications interested in its ability to capture events in real time, unlike the bulkier press cameras that were becoming rapidly outdated.
Mr. Mydans was selected to join the staff of Time Inc.’s new publication, LIFE magazine, which would be heavily reliant upon photography as a means of storytelling. While there, he met a vivacious researcher named Shelley Smith. The couple married shortly thereafter, and formed a lasting personal and professional partnership. During World War II, the Mydans were dispatched to Europe, where Mr. Mydans photographed the activity along the Finnish-Russian border. He would have to hide two of his cameras within his sheepskin coat to protect them from the frigid temperatures. The couple traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, and became a news story themselves when they were captured during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. They were released in exchange for Japanese prisoners, and were soon back out in the field.
In 1944, Mr. Mydans became one of a trio of Americans who covered General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines, and the following year was in Hiroshima to document the aftermath of the bombing that brought an end to the war. Mr. Mydans’ wartime coverage brought him international recognition, which was made readily apparent when one of the prisoners he rescued at the Santo Tomas camp (where he and his wife had served their own captivity) exclaimed upon seeing the LIFE photographer, “My God, it’s Carl Mydans!” Despite his own pacifist views, Mr. Mydans also chronicled the Korean War, where fellow photographer David Douglas Duncan convinced him to switch from Contax to Nikkor lenses.
Mr. Mydans remained with LIFE until it ended weekly publication in 1972. Afterwards, he worked as a freelance journalist, and returned to the Philippines at the age of 79 to cover the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Carl Mydans died in Larchmont, New York on August 16, 2004, and the words he wrote for an unpublished book on photojournalism serve as a fitting epitaph for himself and his pioneering colleagues: “We became storytellers and recorders of our times in pictures.”
2018 Carl Mydans (URL: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/carl-mydans?all/all/all/all/0).
1985 Carl Mydans, Photojournalist (New York: Abrams), p. 17.
1942 Life Magazine (Feb. 23) (Chicago: TIME, Inc.), pp. 8-9.
2016 Photographer Spotlight: Carl Mydans by Lily Rothman and Liz Ronk (URL: http://time.com/4326758/photographer-spotlight-carl-mydans).
1991 Popular Photography, Vol. XCVIII (New York, NY: Hachette Magazines, Inc.), p. 38.
2004 The Washington Post (Washington, DC: WP Company LLC), p. B06.
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